tv Dateline MSNBC January 21, 2018 2:00am-3:00am PST
you're -- >> guilty of manslaughter. >> reporter: it's an ending that neither side had hoped for, a family saga with so much love and so much loss. an imperfect conclusion. all of a sudden, i realized, what's going on? why are they late? something definitely was wrong. he said, your family was in an accident. and my whole world just dropped out from underneath me. >> the scene told the story. >> what did you find? >> something i don't want to see again. >> a deadly crash on a dark road, two gone, one barely alive. a tragic accident. but look closer.
in all the broken glass and twisted metal, was there a clue to a crime? >> the last thing i wanted was to have to take a double fatality and now treat it as a homicide. >> murder and accusation no, no one saw coming. two families in torment. >> we were just -- >> a small-town trial with big emotions. >> you took it. you did it. >> and the verdict that would shake them all. hello and welcome to "dateline" extra. big sky country, a small town and a famously dangerous highway. that was the setting for a deadly crash that left shock and heartbreak in its wake, except they were about to find out that this tragedy was also a mystery and the truth about what happened on that late winter
night might be darker than anyone knew. here's keith morrison. >> march 19, 2009. night fell heavy in montana's flat head valley. something was wrong. anxiety spiked. where was she? >> it just felt like something was not right. >> it's hard to explain that there's something not normal. >> you could set jury clock by their daughter justine, that reliable. but, a new driver, too, just 16. was late from her boyfriend's house. and though she wasn't very late, something was wrong. >> i started calling her about five after 8:00. no answer. called the house where she was at. and they said she had left 15 minutes before that. >> i was thinking she had went off the road between their house and us.
>> not far away, another family, the other half of hour story was on the road, too. erin thompson was driving her son caden home from a school concert. he played the drums. >> i'd always attended all of caden's concerts. and this was the first one i didn't attend because i had car trouble of. >> this is caden's stepfather. >> my car was in the shop. and so erin dropped me off. that's why i wasn't with them. >> and soon, the poison, the anxiety seeped under jason's door into his nerve endings. >> all of a sudden i realized, why are they late? it struck me something definitely was wrong. >> at justine winters' house. the fear was deep now. her father was a national guardsman and knew what he had to do. he got in his truck, drove out of town to the road he knew
she'd take coming home from her boyfriend's house. then he saw it in a construction zone. >> what did you find? >> something i don't want to see again. you can say a fireman's worst nightmare. >> someone tried to hold him back. he kept on. >> i saw her over at the side. >> his perfect daughter. his justine, obscenely broken. but amazingly, still alive. >> how did she look? >> i didn't really see a lot of her on the gurney there. but i got to see her, you know, at the hospital. >> she was pretty bad. >> you know, you don't want to ever see your kid in the hospital. >> every bit of r was daged, horribly, broken bones, brn damage, ruptured organs.
the chance she'd survive, slim, said the doctors. but the winters' news could have been worse. and a few miles away where the phone rang at jason thompson's house, the news was much worse. the caller was the county coroner? he said jason, your family was in an accident. and i'm sorry to have to tell you this on the phone, but they're just killed. and my whole world just dropped out from underneath me. >> jason's wife, 35-year-old erin thompson was four months pregnant. her son caden, the boy who just plaid the drums at his school concert was just 13. and just like that, they were gone. the crash was head on. and the school counselor jason thompson's life, the light went out.
>> i'll never forget that news. >> nor of course will erin's mother, diana. >> we were both just bonkers. just -- >> or her sister, amber, who with david, her husband missed erin so much they made plans to move to montana to be close. not possible now. >> that was the hardest piece of news we could fathom. >> and to lose both of them and the baby, it just didn't seem like it could be real. >> and here, in the little house he shared with the love of his life, where he'd been waiting with such excitement for their baby to arrive, jason like job of old was filled with sorrow. >> i'm 9 years old when my
sister dies and then i'm 39 and i lose my family. >> missing that concert, you lived. how's that been to wrap your head around? >> i definitely didn't fear death anymore. there's times where i would have welcomed it. >> but the dreadful truth of it is that accidents just like the one here happen all around america every day, every night. still, just as the permanence of loss began to sink in. before anyone had given a thought to a now-diminished future, there was another piece of news. this time on this road. the fatal accident might not have been an accident at all.
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later. >> i add an ideal. i was searching for her. >> and she, as she told everybody, had been looking for him. erin was a single mom when jason met her brilliant smile. she was a hairdresser who loved to dance. she was a seeker in all matters spiritual. >> she was single and young mother, and she was wondering what she was going to do with her life. she answered her own question and said well as long as i'm about the business of spreading love, it doesn't matter. >> young caden seemed as pleased as she was. >> caden who shared his mother and new stepfather's craving for outdoor adventures. >> backpacking on the coast in the mountains, river rafting, all about sharing that time
together. >> yes. and there was a plan erin hatched with her sister amber. >> we always had a dream of growing up and living next door each other. >> ever day i would praise my wife and my little baby i was finally going to have and it all made sense. >> then came march 19, tw2009. >> just teen winter was alive. though barely, a broken neck and legs and major internal injuries, doctors told the family they didn't thingthink s >> they told us she wouldn't
live. >> i said >> and she did survive. and the emergency operations to stitch together the pieces of her body. she was unconscious when she arrived, the doctors kept her that way so she could avoid the pain and knowledge of her desperate situation. her body slowly, slowly began to knit itself back together until more than a month later. >> and her eyes just went poof. that was like the most incredible feeling of she's there. she's in there. and your heart's just beating. >> it was days later before justine could understand what was going on around her but the news had to be faced eventually. so when she seemed ready, they told her. >> when you told her what happened in the accident and how
those other people had died, how did she react to that? >> it was very emotional for her. it was very devastating. >> and then what was discovered was, well, quite frankly unimaginable. for, in the middle of that river of tears of relief on the one side, abject grief on the other, there was an undertow and twist nobody saw coming. for, while justine spent 45 days in the hospital recuperating and months more here at home in montana healing, it didn't take investigators very long at all, matter of hours, really, to solve the mystery of who and what caused this crash. in fact, the first officers believed that justine winters' car was the one that crossed the center line and smashed into erin thompson's car, but the
worst of it, the inconceivable part was, at least as investigators told flat head county coroner, this was not an accident at all. >> what was your first reaction. what did you think? >> nuts. this was the last thing i wanted was to have to take a double fatality and now treat it as a homicide. >> homicide? yes. what they found in justine's car a minute by minute revelation. in text messages. in the messages was the evidence he believed required him to press criminal charges against that girl doctors had quite miraculously saved, justine winter. charges of? murder. >> the prosecutor lays out his case while jason gets yet another shock.
"dateli investigators are co that justine winters intentionally crashed her car into erin thompson's, killing the pregnant mother and her 13 year old son caden. their evidence? threatening text messages sent by justine minutes before the fatal collision. here again is keith morrison. >> the sorrow ran deep in montana's flathead valley, that awful spring and summer of 2009. deep and wide, the whole valley, in fact, the country, heard about the crash that killed caden and erin and her unborn child and the strange story that
justine winter took deadly aim at ir erin's oncoming car. justine said the police was trying to commit suicide. how did they know? they found the evidence on justine's phone, they said. text messages, which she wrote herself and which, once county coroner ed corrigan saw them, left him no choice, on charging her with homicide. >> smashed head on into another car and by doing so, she should have known her actions would have killed somebody and under those circumstances, homicide was the only option. >> you charged her as an adult.
she was 16. >> she was. taking of two lives is not my opinion of a delinquent act. it's a crime. and it needs to be on her record the rest of her life. >> justine, after pleading not guilty was released to house arrest. she was allowed to attend classes at glacier high and at home her parents fumed. no matter what those text messages said, the idea justine would cause that accident on purpose was just crazy. are you angry about all of this? >> it builds up inside and it comes to a point where you can't take it anymore. >> the families knew each other. justine's mother and erin's mother worked at the same school. what they wanted most of all was a heartfelt apology and some
responsibility. they saw that as a way to work forgiveness. and most people around town thought that was a fine idea. but from justine and her family, it was just an awkward silence. then, early one morning in the fall of 2010, an entirely unexpected knock at the door took emotions to a whole new level. >> this private investigator, you know, hands me these papers like he's serving me papers said that they are suing, you know, erin's estate. >> suing you? >> suing me. for her pain and suffering. >> it was true. in a legal preemptive strike, justine winters' attorneys had filed a lawsuit on her behalf against erin's estate. they claimed the companies had
failed to adequately maintain and construct the facility causing confusing conditions. >> i can't even begin to guess what they were thinking about. >> it inflamed the whole town. >> inflamed the whole town. that wasn't justine's decision. that was a decision made by the attorneys. >> maxwell battle and david stuffed. and according to the winters' attorneys, the lawsuit, assuming justine was found not guilty would give them a better shot at insurance company reimbursement later. >> there's no intent of going for the estate, making that family endure what they've already endured. >> butt optics were awful. >> the timing could have been, who knows, better. >> you'd pick up the newspaper, hear the blogs, hear the radio and what you got was those awful
people, they're trying to sue the victims of this crime. >> that's what was portrayed. but the actual intent was not that. at all. >> all rise, district court is now in session. >> misunderstood or not, by the time justine winters' trial started in january of 2011 the tide of public opinion had turned as bitter as a montana winter. the hearts of erin thompson's family, too, had toughened. and justine who showed nun an almost child-like polka dot headband didn't look like a killer facing as much as 200 years behind bars. there she was. she watched investigators testify to a certainty that it was justine's pontiac grand am that crossed the center line. >> here you can see all this debris from the initial impact of the crash. go slamming into erin's subaru
so hard it was driven backward into the highway barrier and crash reconstructionists agreed. >> justine winters' car encroached into the northbound lane, striking mrs. thompson's vehicle. >> what evidence was there that justine had done it, as the law says, purposefully? investigators pulled the so-called black box out of justine's pontiac and analyzed the data and found another sign that pointed to suicide. she'd taken off her seat belt. the black box recorded speed, acceleration and braking and found that justine was accelerating, flooring it, so to speak, in the five seconds before the crash, speeding up from 81 to 86 miles per hour before hitting the brakes at the last second. >> she did not swerve. and she drove head on into that other vehicle.
>> to back it up, investigators pulled speedometer from justine's car, and there above the mark an of 85 miles per hour found an orange mark. it's known as a slap mark. made when the needle smashes against the console at high speed. and prosecutors revealed the reasoning behind it all. justine like many 16-year-old girl also a boyfriend. hers was named ryan. it was white hot, this relationship. he was her world. that day in march, there'd been a tiff. they'd had words. that night she drove ryan home, asked him to get out of the car, he said they were through. she began texting ryan. apparently while behind the wheel. the first text half an hour before the crash. >> good-bye ryan, just live your
life knowing you did change me. my last words, i love you, ryan. >> then her text became somehow threatening. >> if i won, i would have you and i wouldn't crash my cash. >> and ryan answered. >> you kill yourself i kill myself. so come on, don't be selfish. >> that's only thing i want to live for, you, ryan, you keep me living. >> stop it. you hurt yourself and i'll know, i'll do the same. >> then the final message from ryan. >> you killing yourself is just another way for you to run away. >> and just five or six minutes later, prosecutors said justine drove mother car into erin thompson's lane to commit suicide but instead, killed mother, child, unborn baby.
the prosecution had made its case for murder. now the question was, what could justine winters' attorneys possibly say to make a jury believe otherwise? >> coming up. >> the defense takes on the heart of the case. those texts. when "dateline" continues. ♪ so probably take it at night. and if you have any questions, the instructions are here in spanish as you requested. gracias. ♪ at walgreens, how we care will change over time, but why we care remains the same treating everyone with the care and attention they deserve. walgreens. trusted since 1901. are cream conditioners bringing your hair down? switch to new pantene light as air foam conditioner, full of rich pro-v nutrients.
the government shutdown is now in its second full day. the house and senate will reconvene today after lawmakers spend time blaming the other side. president trump remains at the white house to monitor the situation, skipping a florida party to mark the first anniversary of his presidency. hundreds of thousands hitting the street. now, back to "dateline".
welcome back to "dateline" extra. the prosecution had made their case. now it was the defense's turn. could they convince the jury to see justine winters' text messages in a different light? once again, keith morrison. >> every day in this montana courtroom, the family of now 17-year-old justine winter, dutifully shuffled to the seats behind the defense table. their face by their attorney's decree, an intentional blank. emotionless. their apparent demeanor a spur in the hide of an already angry town. but almost no one knew what was really going on. justine's mother mary who'd been struggling with alcohol caved in to the stress. tell me how it changed your life. ? i ran away from it all. i couldn't deal with it. i just left the house. i didn't come back.
>> justine's brother, kyle, dropped out of college to help keep things together at home and get justine to her medical appointments. and her father turned angry and bitter at the continuing prosecution of his little girl. >> i could be sitting in the living room watching tv and all of a sudden i hear something. i'd just completely lose it and start crying. >> the whole world, said justine's dad, seemed to bend on misunderstanding demonizing his little girl, yet he said she'd always been so good, kind, thoughtful and responsible. getting almost straight-as in high school. but mostly wouldn't harm a bug, literally and cared about people. would never, never want to hurt that sweet woman or her son or her baby. >> always had a smile. always wanted to help.
it's who she was. >> what kind after little girl was this? >> just a good girl. >> but it might interest you to know that as the winters spoke to us here, they were doing so against the expressed advice of their attorneys. and when it was time for justine's defense team to make its case in court, attorneys maxwell battle and david stuffed told the jury that everything the prosecution told them, everything they knew about the case so far was wrong. >> what happened out there was an accident. >> including where the crash occurred. remember the prosecution's experts testified there was no doubt justine crossed the center line. but an engineer hired by the defense said turned their research turned that on its hid. claiming it was erin who struck
justine and claiming that the slap mark near the 85 mile mark in justine's car was planted there by investigators. that the black box that measured speed and braking was plain wrong, that justine always wore her seat belt. and finally, a psychologist said that a spat with a boy wasn't enough to lead to a suicide attempt. and those texts should not be considered a suicide note at all. >> it was a way of exercising power and control. in the relationship to make that kind of threat, but it was always clear it was never meant. >> what would justine winters say about what happened here that might about those texts? the jury would never know. she did not testify on the advice of attorneys, said her family, and of course that was her perfect right.
justine suffered a brain injury in that crash. so her recollection of the last few days leading up to the crash and that night itself here, she doesn't remember. she is charged with a crime about which her memory is a complete blank. so, then, how could the jury know that justine knowingly crossed the center line, having decided to commit suicide by hitting the other car? the question we put to the prosecution. in order to draw that conclusion you have to read her mind, essentially. you've been a prosecutor for years. you know car accidents happen in the most bizarre ways. people do crazy things on the road. but you clearly said this was a situation in which i know what somebody was thinking when they drove that lane of traffic and into the other car. i just don't know how you can know what she was thinking. >> i don't now what she was thinking, she doesn't know what she was thinking. all i can do is base my decision
on what the evidence shows. >> did the evidence clearly show justine winter had made up her mind to commit suicide by driving into an oncoming car? up to the jury now. >> coming up. >> everyone just cried about it. >> a verdict comes quickly, but the pain and one final question remain when "dateline" continues. for this product is overwhelmingly positive. this toothpaste sensodyne repair & protect can actually repair and protect sensitive teeth. and as long as they brush twice a day, everyday, then they can expect to continually have that reparative layer of protection against sensitivity. sensodyne repair & protect has clinical evidence showing how effective it works. i absolutely think that dentists are going to want to recommend sensodyne repair & protect. ♪
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will. the defense twist what the family believed were the facts of the case. >> they were unusual as victims because of this willingness to forgive justine. >> it's the adults of her life that should steering her in this direction. it's not her decisions. it's the adults. so i have plenty of anger towards them. >> but for justine's family, too, there was considerable strain. so much that randy buckled under pressure and was rushed to the hospital and not present in the courtroom. >> i will have the clerk to file the verdict and read it please. >> when after just four hours of deliberation, the jury came back. >> we the jury enter the following unanimous verdict to the charge of deliberate homicide for the death of erin thompson, guilty. for the death of caden o'dell, guilty.
>> this was an absolutely horrible, numbing experience. i put my head to my knees. >> the whole courtroom. everyone just cried about it. >> how did she look? as she was led off to jail? your little girl? >> she looked very stunned. she didn't look back. just a week after that verdict, justine winter marked her 18th birthday in a jail cell and then came sentencing day. and everyone wondered, would justine finally tell erin's family, her husband what they desperately wanted to hear? in your ideal world, what would you like to hear from justine? >> to be sorry for what she took from us, because it was, it is huge. >> but just before sentencing,
the family received it this. a statement written by justine. and it wasn't even close to what they were looking for. in it, she called herself a miracle who was wrongly convicted of a horrific crime. she wrote that she would never, ever in a million years take her own life or anyone else's. that this was an accident that had been blown out of proportion. that she didn't need time behind bars, just a chance to turn a horrific situation into a positive one. and so, with this statement in mind, the family of erin and caden took the stand to have their own say. >> i want for you to make something positive of your life through this. but you still have yet to grasp the truth. >> caden's father, the same message, more anger. >> you took him. you did it. and you need to own it. you killed my boy. you need to own it.
>> and finally, caden's stepfather, jason. the elementary school counselor, first compassion then venom at the defense team. >> i've chosen not to believe that you, in crashing your car that night wanted to harm or would ever think about harming them, but it has been very, very, very difficult to hold onto that thought, given that you've been led by these two men and influenced by them to not do what is most important in all of this, in this and show and demonstrate to us that you are sorry for having taken them. >> then, finally the moment as justine winter herself took the stand to speak for the first time. >> i've wanted to speak with you for two years now. i've wanted to let you guys know that my heart goes out to you.
and, as every single one of you came up here today, my heart was breaking. but i just hope that you guys will be able to forgive that i will never be able to say that i intentionally crossed the center line wanting to take three lives from all of you. >> but before the judge allowed justine to leave the witness stand, the prosecutor stepped to the podium and asked a question on behalf of the victims' families. a question that froze the courtroom. >> what they wanted to hear from you for a long, long time also is "i'm sorry." can you tell them that? >> i'm sorry for your loss. but i cannot, i don't know what
you're meaning by you want me to say that i'm sorry. >> and so the hammer came down. >> it's the order of the court. the defendant is committed for a period of 30 years, with 15 years suspended. >> 15 years in prison. and her father back on his feet in time for sentencing day began his own term, inside his own soul. >> the system betrayed me. you serve your country and you feel betrayed about it. >> you feel betrayed by the country you fought for? >> mm-hm about the judicial part. >> they took her, this once promising honor student to a cell in a montana women's prison where she instantly became the youngest inmate in the place and two months later, those two attorneys, stuffed and battle, who declined our request for interview were off the case. that civil lawsuit was dropped.
and that's when justine winter decided to tell us her side of the whole, sad story. a >> coming up, an exclusive interview with justine. >> you say probably you caused that accident. are you able to say i take responsibility for that? hey, need fast heartburn relief? try cool mint zantac. it releases a cooling sensation in your mouth and throat.
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♪ welcome back. teenager justine winter was convicted of deliberate homicide in the car crash death of a mother and son. would the victim's family finally get the apology they've been waiting for? here is keith morrison with the conclusion of our story. justine winter tells her story. here again is keith morrison. >> shortly after justine winter
walked out of this courtroom in montana, she landed here, more than 450 miles east across the state, at the women's prison in billings. quite well aware of how all this time, she'd been the target of so much curiosity and anger. i'm curious to know what your thought process was as you went abt deding, yeah, i think i'll talk now. i don't know. i ess it wasrobably that i was being shown in a different light than what i wanted to be shown in. >> when you read accounts of your case and when you see the comments people write, what's that like? >> they are really hard to read. i heard one that said i need to hang from a noose on a tree. >> what does it feel like, inside, when you saw that comment, for example? >> i'm really weird, and with my brain injury, i feel it in a second, but it's hard to, like, recall it afterwards. >> that brain injury is the
reason, she says, she sometimes smiles when she doesn't mean to. why everything came out wrong, she says, when she took the stand and spoke at sentencing. and why, she says, she recalls nothing about the crash. and even the prosecutor believes that. >> i don't remember the night of the accident, but i remember events that i know had to have happened right before the accident happened. >> what events would though be? >> i remember doing stuff to get ready for prom, because prom was supposed to be two days after when the accident happened, but other than that, i don't really remember a whole lot about march. >> what do you remember about the last time you saw your boyfriend? >> i have no idea. i remember we spent oodles of time together. >> you were inseparable. >> pretty much. >> in love? >> kid love. >> that's pretty strong love, that kid love, isn't it? >> yeah.
i remember, if i wasn't with him, i was texting him all the time. >> but as for those texts following the argument with ryan just before the crash? justine says, despite what many believe, she would never, ever have tried to commit suicide. knowing, as she does, that her grandmother, randy's mother, killed herself when her dad was just a boy. in fact, she says, the most likely explanation is, she was just playing a game of sorts with ryan. >> he liked controlling everything, having to do with, like, my life, and he threatened suicide twice. that's what i would think was happening, was that i was playing his own card back at him. >> well, i'm going to kill myself then. >> yeah. i don't think that they were text messages that were to be taken seriously. >> if you look at them through justine's eyes, they don't seem that way. but the jury didn't look at it
through your eyes. >> no. >> and despite her conviction, all that evidence, and the fact that she has no memory of that night, justine still claims she must have been wearing her seat belt. and cannot imagine driving her car at 85 miles an hour. just not the sort of thing she ever did, she says. something happened, you swerved across and hit that other car. does that sound about right? >> yeah. >> it's probably you who caused the accident. that's fair to say. >> uh-huh. >> and if you say it's probably you who caused that accident, are you able to say, yeah, you know, if i did it, and i probably did cause it, i just feel horrible about that. >> uh-huh. >> and i take responsibility for that. >> yeah. >> is it possible for you to say that? >> yeah, if i knew, then i would take responsibility for it. you know, if it was me, i take complete, utter responsibility for it. and i do.
>> and now, finally, said the words, almost, that erin and caden's family yearned to hear, justine is through holding a pity party for herself. >> all that i would change about the accident is that they lived. and if it had to be, so be that they lived and i didn't, i'd be okay with that. because i don't -- i don't like seeing anyone else in pain. i know my family was put in a lot of pain because of the accident but they've got to see me grow up. >> and the other family can't see that. >> yep. and i don't want to put them in anymore pain than they've already had to be put through.
and i want to make everything -- everything okay for them. in 2015 justine w granted parole. for erin's widow, his dream is gone. only an empty chair, as if so many of he and the family as if climbing the montana mountains try to keep putting one foot in front of the other. >> it's a dance between the grief of their loss to the joy and the blessing of having experienced them. >> it's like seeing a meteor. you wouldn't curse your luck that you saw this meteor, you would just be thankful that you were blessed to see it. and so we just have to cling to that, just that wow. how amazing that we got to spend
a good part of our life with two of the most precious people on the planet. that's all for this edition of "dateline extra." i'm craig melvin. thanks for watching. ♪ shutdown saturday. let's play hardball. good evening, i'm chris matthews in washington for a special saturday edition of "hardball" onset p.m. on the east coast. 19 hours into a government shutdown, and the only thing both sides agree on, it is the other side's fault. >> negotiating with president trump is like negotiating with jello. that's why this compromise will be called a trump shutdown